My black is beautiful. That's why I edited my photo using new filters for people of color.

My skin is brown so sometimes I look weird in photos.

Usually, I'm rendered virtually invisible, either by my surroundings or poor light.
Or thanks to filters and edits, I'm completely washed out — an ashy or jaundiced version of myself. It's not a good look.


With a few friends ahead of the Rose Bowl in 2011. At least my glasses and shadow showed up.

If you're taking pictures while brown — and there are a lot of us — there's a good chance you've experienced this too.

47% of African-American and 38% of Hispanic people online use Instagram. (The figure is around 21% for white internet users.) However, the filters and features that make the tool so fun to use often make the skin of black and brown people look pale, aged, or washed out.

Except you, Hefe. You never let me down. Filters by Instagram. Photo by the author.

That's because the film photography aesthetics Instagram mimics weren't created with people of color in mind.

It all dates back to something called the Shirley cards, named after a former Kodak studio model. Decades after the original Shirley left Kodak, the cards featured a white woman often in a brightly colored dress.

GIF via Vox/YouTube.

The technician would adjust the colors of the printer to match the model's skin tone. And this color balance was applied to everyone's film, regardless of their complexion.

So for decades, people of color were quite literally edited out of the pictures.

While the original Shirley card gave way to more diversity and eventually to digital photography, the resurgence of this classic aesthetic means the problems of early film are back with a vengeance.

But all is not lost. Not even close. Because now, there's Tōnr.

Conceived by product engineers and designers of color for Vox Media's Hackathon, Tōnr is a new web application with filters that showcase and highlight the richness and beauty of darker complexions.

"I haven’t been lucky when using filters in the common photo apps: they wash me out, add to much contrast, and are generally unflattering," said Pamela Assogba, full stack engineer at Vox Media and member of the Tōnr team, via email. "I think my skin tone is great, and deserve better treatment, so working on a solution made sense, especially because a lot of people could benefit from it."

Image via iStock.

The team of Vox engineers and designers came together for two and a half days of intense work, creating melanin-flattering photo filters using JavaScript and Photoshop.

"When I first started formulating the filters, I made sure to start with darkest skin first and work my way backwards," said designer Brittany Holloway-Brown. "It's important to pay attention to the margins of marginalized communities and to let them know that their faces, their bodies, their thoughts matter. It's a very small push against the heavy status quo."

Holloway-Brown researched fashion spreads, photography, and plenty of selfies on social media to see how people of color were lit and portrayed. "My focus was on emphasizing the color, enhancing undertones and heightening the saturation of the skin," she said via email.

On desktop or mobile, users can apply one of Tōnr's 12 filters to their photograph.

There's no upload required, so the photo never leaves your device. Once it's edited, users can upload their pictures to Instagram for additional edits or share them with their networks as they are.

"Tōnr is an act of love, expression, resistance, and passion because this is an application that tells me and people that look like me that we matter, even if society tends to say different," said Assogba.

Image via iStock.

As a woman of color with a fondness for the occasional selfie, I decided to try Tōnr out for myself.

While none of the filters made me look like Kerry Washington (technology is only so powerful), most of them did bring out the warm tones in my skin. If nothing else, I had more options and starting points than ever before.

I'm not a Sorbet girl, but consider Strut my filter of choice for summer '16. Filters by tōnr. Photo by the author.

Though Tōnr is still in its infancy, the team is all about reaching more people of color, both as users and creators.

The team hopes to add more filters, and a mobile application for iOS and Android is on the table. But for now, they're reaching out to other developers and creators for their ideas and input.

"We made the app open source so that others who are down for the cause can make contributions to this project," said designer Alesha Randolph.

Assogba added, "I’m really excited to see other people of color dig into the open source code and build filters or propose features for an app built with them in mind."

Everyone, regardless of complexion, deserves to look and feel their best. Here's hoping this tool, and others yet to come, help all of us do just that.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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Prior to European colonization of North America, millions of bison roamed the Great Plains. By the turn of the 20th century, those numbers had dropped to less than 1,000. The deliberate decimation of buffalo herds was a direct attack on the Native American people, who colonizers saw as an obstacle to their "Manifest Destiny," and who the U.S. government engaged in a systematic attempt to eliminate or force into docile submission.

For thousands of years, bison were a sacred, inseparable part of life for Indigenous tribes of the Great Plains, used for food, shelter, utensils, and clothing, in addition to spiritual and emotional well-being. Wiping out the bison population nearly wiped out the Native tribes they were connected to.

Though bison numbers have increased significantly thanks to conservation efforts, governments are still grappling with the ugly legacy, and some municipalities are taking steps to try to repair some of the damage done. As one example, the city of Denver, Colorado has taken the step of giving some of the city's bison population managed by Denver Parks and Recreation to Native American tribes engaged in bison conservation efforts.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

Keep Reading Show less